Lots of first-person puzzlers can’t escape the Portal comparisons. Superliminal manages to overcome them by simply being the better game.
Ever since Valve created Portal, other first-person puzzlers featuring a novel central mechanic and a room-by-room difficulty ramp have unavoidably been linked to the timeless game. These descendents are often compared in a simple phrase – “Portal, but with colors,” “Portal, but serious,” “Portal, but with time travel.” In its brevity, Pillow Castle Games’ Superliminal earns an unexpected caveat: Portal, but better.
Superliminal begins in a dream world where the player is the focus of a sleep study. Voiceovers from an AI and tapes played back from the lead doctor guide players room by mind-bending room with a similar British wit as the grandparent of the genre has. Quickly, the player seems to go off the intended path within this dream state and these rooms players explore become catalysts for some of gaming’s greatest “aha!” moments.
Though the game’s 1-2 hour story does alter its central mechanic more than some games like it, the unifying theme is perspective. Early on you can pick up a can of soda, or a chess piece, observe them as their natural size, but depending on how you maneuver, you can change their size. Anything that can be interacted with can be done so from any distance. This allows you to pick up said can, place it across the room, and it instantly becomes a much greater size, perhaps creating the platform you need to advance.
It’s difficult to explain, and so I’ve attached a gameplay trailer, but the short version is to think of it like this: you know how you can sit across a room from someone and cover their head with your thumb so that it disappears? Superliminal is an hour or two of that. It’s truly brain-melting to watch, and though it has some similarities to Valve’s never-released F-Stop idea, Superliminal deserves all the praise for expanding on the unique mechanic and delivering a witty, challenging, one-of-a-kind experience.
The thumb and head analogy serves to explain many of the game’s puzzles, but Superliminal takes the central theme of perspective and toys with it in other ways too. One section features extremely dark levels where you’ll need to navigate the world using one specific and well-hidden solution. Others ask you to observe the world from a certain point of view to allow new objects to literally pop into place, like a die painted on the wall that will, when aligned, fall into place and offer you a new stairway.
The prevailing emotion when playing Superliminal is a sense of wonder. At first, it’s “how do I do this?” Soon after it’s “how did they do that?” There isn’t one puzzle in the dozens found within Superliminal where I felt like the game cheated or the solution wasn’t interesting, more often fascinating, and sometimes even funny too.
Superliminal’s color palette and music lend themselves to the game’s world further, both by being quite pleasant to take in. Soft piano music keeps your brain flowing and offsets the funny things you’ll hear from the study’s supervisors, while the visuals always help identify what in a new room you may be searching for, without ever just handing it to you. Sometimes, a chess piece will be the weight to apply to a pressure pad which opens a locked door. Other times, it will be only a prop. The best times are when nothing is as it seems at all, like when that same looking chess piece is painted across a floor in such a way as to look 3D until you approach and find it stretched across the hardwood.
Room by room, Superliminal is wonderous. Annoyances are few and far between, often coming down to platforms being just a bit under- or over-sized, given the nature of how they’re altered by players in precise increments. While not as mechanically tight as things like Portal or The Turing Test, Superliminal utilizes the creative space afforded to it by its concept of dream logic and masterfully delivers a game that feels familiar at first, but quickly endears itself to players with its unique brand of conundrum.
Final Score: 9
The flow of Superliminal is familiar with its room-by-room presentation, but the contents of each room are unpredictable time after time without fail. Just when you think you’ve got the game figured out, the logic is spun on its head – and sometimes so are you. It’s a must-play game for any genre fan. With biting wit, imaginative puzzles, the power of spectacle akin to your first VR experience, Superliminal is a dream come true.